‘To Daddy – Love Amy xxx’
Maggie lugged the heavy black bag into the charity shop where she worked two mornings a week. The bag was split and had obviously been riffled through.
“Honest,” she said to Ginny who managed the shop, “Stealing from the Hospice – how low can some people get?”
Ginny shrugged. “You have to feel sorry for them if they have to resort to scavenging through our bags,” she said. Her brow puckered. “I thought you were off on holiday.”
“This afternoon,” Maggie said. “I just popped into pick up something to read on the ‘plane.”
At the bookshelf she picked out a James Patterson thriller.
“Go on take it – on the house,” Ginny said.
“Not likely.” Maggie slammed a pound coin on the counter. “That’d be as bad as nicking from the bags outside.”
When Maggie and her husband Ken arrived in Spain it felt like walking into a warm embrace. The sun shone in a cloudless sky, colourful swathes of bourgonvilla, oleander, poppies and mimosa vied with lilies and lavender to perfume the air. “Now, we’re here we might as well enjoy ourselves,” Maggie said, glaring at her husband Ken.
He grunted. He hadn’t wanted to come away, said they couldn’t afford it what with the engineering firm he worked for going bust and taking his pension with it. Every day he’s grown more and more despondent. He’d become tetchy too. Hardly said a word and snapped at her when she made any suggestions. It was only because of their Joanna finding the cheap as chips holiday to Spain on the internet that Maggie had managed to persuaded him to take the break they both needed. Now she was here she was determined to make the most of it.
The first morning, after breakfast, they wandered into town and had coffee at a small café on the front. Ken read the newspaper and Maggie opened her book.
“Look,” she said, showing Ken the inscription, a child’s scribble in biro, on the fly-leaf. It read ‘To daddy love Amy xxx’. “Don’t you think that’s sad?” Maggie couldn’t image giving away any of her children’s gifts. She’d kept all their offerings from the garish primary school paintings to the odd shaped plasticine models they’d produced with such pride. “This must have been somebody’s treasured possession once. I wonder how it ended up in the charity shop?”
Ken raised an eyebrow. “Not surprising really,” he said. “Where do you think all our treasured possessions will go when we pop our clogs? Can’t see the kids wanting to keep our stuff. It’ll end up on the scrapheap, just like us.”
Maggie huffed. He was right. Their children had lives of their own and they’d collect their own treasures to keep their memories alive. Still, she couldn’t help feeling sad.
The first day set the pattern for the rest of the holiday. Each morning they’d stroll along to the coffee shop, Ken would read his paper and Maggie her book. In the afternoons, she’d take a dip in the hotel pool and dry off on a sun-bed while her husband enjoyed a spot of male bonding in the local bar watching his beloved football. Gregarious by nature he’d always come back with some tale he’d heard, stories of different people he’d met. He could strike up a conversation with a cat, unlike Maggie who was content with her own company. Perhaps that’s why they got on so well, being so different.
In the evening, after dinner they’d stroll along the beach, hand in hand. Walking in the moonlight, with the sound of the waves lapping the shore, Maggie felt completely at peace. If only life could always be like this, she thought. Sometimes they walked as far as the Harbour to watch the boats unload. The evening air was filled with the men’s shouts and the smell of fish. By the end of the holiday Maggie noticed a change in Ken. He was relaxed, happy and brimming with new ideas and plans. He’d even got a light tan.
“Chap in the pub’s given me the name of a man who restores vintage cars,” he told her. “Says he’s always looking for someone to supply parts. I could make them in the garage.”
Maggie smiled in satisfaction.
When they were packing to leave, she couldn’t shut her case.
“It’s all those presents for the grandchildren,” Ken said. “You spoil them.”
Maggie pulled a face. Isn’t that what grandparents do, she thought. “There’s no room in my hand-luggage either,” she said. “I’ll have to leave the book. I’ve finished it anyway.”
It was evening before Maria and Dolores got round to cleaning the room. The wastepaper basket was crammed with old newspapers, empty water bottles and plastic bags. A book had been left on the dressing table.
“Put it in the rubbish,” Dolores said, holding the black bag open.
Maria frowned. “It’s a book. You can’t put books in the rubbish.”
“It’s in English. You can hardly speak English let alone read it. What you going to do with an English book?”
Maria thought for a moment, then her face brightened. “I’ll take it my neighbour in hospital. She’s English, she’d probably like an English book to read.”
As they finished cleaning and making up the room Maria thought about her English neighbour. She hardly knew her, only that she lived in the apartment opposite and kept herself to herself. She hardly ever went out. Maria was going up the stairs the day before when she’d seen the old lady coming down. She heard a crash, a cry, a thump and a groan. Maria called the ambulance and went with the old lady to hospital. A broken collar bone, sprained ankle and some bruising the doctor said. Eleanor had felt dizzy before she fell, so they were keeping her in for tests.
“I can’t manage the stairs in a wheelchair anyway,” Eleanor said.
“Do you have any family?” the Doctor asked.
“In England,” Eleanor replied. “I don’t think we need bother them.”
Eleanor turned the book over in her hand. James Patterson, she thought, how kind of her neighbour to bring it. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d read a book – not all the way through. These days she preferred magazines – they required a much shorter attention span. When she did attempt a book she found her mind wandering, or she’d doze off and lose track of the plot.
It had been different when they’d first come to Spain fifteen years ago, her and Tom. She’d had lots of time then, time to read, go walking and sailing. Tom loved the sea. Of course the sea here was quite different from the sea at home: calm azure waters beneath a wide blue sky as opposed to oppressive greyness, wild winds and crashing waves. Tom loved the sea and all its moods and she loved Tom, he was her world. When he died she felt as though she’d been cast adrift on one of those stormy seas.
Laura, their daughter, had wanted her to move back to England and live with her and Paul, but she didn’t want to be a burden and anyway she wanted to stay with Tom. He loved this place.
“When I die,” he said when his illness took hold, “bury me here among the olive groves.”
So they did. They buried him on a hillside overlooking the town where the sun warmed his grave. Eleanor didn’t visit the grave, preferring to keep him alive in her mind, although her life changed after he died. There was no more sailing around the coast, discovering secluded coves and bays, no more cocktails hours at the Harbour Club, followed by dinner at a local restaurant, no more socialising with ex-pats. Eleanor couldn’t bear the gaiety, the clinking of glasses and the laughter; without Tom it all seemed shallow and pointless.
“Is there anything you need? Anything I can get for you?”
Lost in her memories Eleanor had quite forgotten Maria sitting there. She smiled. “How kind,” she said.
Maria stood in Eleanor’s bedroom holding the list of thing she required. She noticed a suitcase on top of the wardrobe and a small holdall next to the bed. She picked up the holdall and began collecting the things Eleanor requested. A photo in a silver frame stood on the bedside table. Maria picked it up. A man, late sixties, wearing a sailing cap and blazer grinned out at her. His face was tanned and crinkled, dark strands of hair curled around the cap. The pipe clenched between his teeth gave him a rakish air, accentuated by the twinkle in his blue as the Mediterranean eyes. Ah, the husband, Maria thought, and slipped the photo into the holdall. There were more photos in the living room: a wedding group, the bride and groom flanked by Eleanor and her husband, a mother, father and three boys, three boys huddled together, aged between eight and thirteen Maria guessed. The last was inscribed ‘To Nan, love Dylan, Henry and Scott.’ Maria frowned. Grandchildren?
She grimaced. She couldn’t understand these English people. Why did the old lady live here alone and her grandchildren thousands of miles away?
She remembered her own Grandmamma, a small woman with steel grey hair to match her steel grey eyes, eyes keener than a hawk. She was feared and loved in equal measure. Dressed in black she sat by the back door crocheting, but she missed nothing. A smile spread across Maria’s face at the memory. Her parents worked in the fields with her aunts and uncles from early morning while Grandmamma got her and her cousins ready for school. They came home for lunch, eaten amid much chatter and laughter, around a long table on the terrace under the trees.
Grandmamma dished up huge bowls of paella, chicken, chorizo sausages and spiced tortilla. There was fresh baked bread, ham and cheese. Copious amounts of sangria accompanied the meal, orange juice for the children. After a boisterous lunch the grown-ups would settle for siesta while the children cleared the table and washed the dishes before being allowed out to play. Later the workers returned to the fields to make the most of the cool evening air and Maria and her cousins did their homework under Grandmamma’s watchful eye. Grandmamma was a firecracker. If they incurred her wrath she’d chase them with the bristle broom and slap their legs. She was strict but they knew they were loved. Maria wiped a tear from her eye.
On the side near Eleanor’s chair, an address book lay open next to the telephone. There was only one number on the page, with the name Laura. Maria reached out and lifted the receiver.
Several days later Laura stood in her mother’s bedroom, folding her clothes and packing them into the suitcase from the top of the wardrobe. She’d been surprised to find her father’s clothes still hanging in the closet. They carried his smell, but faded now. How long had it been? Ten years at least. She couldn’t understand why her mother stayed. She’d tried many times to persuade her to come home but she never would.
“This is my home,” she said.
Laura felt a pang of guilt as she glanced around the room. Of course she’d meant to visit more often but with a husband and three boys it wasn’t that easy. They’d have had to stay in a hotel and with the boys at school it would have had to be in the holidays and everyone knew how the costs spiralled in school holidays. Laura sighed. She should have done more. She wouldn’t even have known about the fall if it hadn’t been for that maid ringing her. She could strangle her mother sometimes – her and her blasted independence.
She folded the last of the cotton frocks into the suitcase. All her mother’s clothes were dated and most of them well worn. It didn’t look as if she’d bought anything knew since the funeral. Laura sighed.
At least her mother had agreed to come home with her and stay until she was better.
“We’ll see how it works out after that,” Laura said.
She was looking forward to her mother staying. It would be good to have some female company for a change. Living with four males can be a bit wearing, she thought and the boys would love seeing their Nan, someone else to impress and confuse with their computer games. Dylan was the spitting image of his grandfather, Henry had his quirky sense of humour and Scott had inherited Tom’s spirit of adventure. Perhaps if Eleanor saw Tom’s legacy and how he lived on in his grandchildren she’d feel less alone. Laura had been shocked at how frail her mother looked in the hospital. Still, once she got her home she’d be able to take care of her, put the sparkle back in her eyes and the fun back in her life.
She thought about her friend Stacey who lived around the corner. Her mother lived a couple of doors away. They popped into each others’ houses every day. ‘My built in baby-sitter,’ Stacey called her Mum. Laura envied their closeness. It wouldn’t do her and Paul any harm to have a little time to go out together either, she thought.
She sighed, clicked the suitcase shut and carried it through to the living room. She took one last look around the room before going out to the waiting taxi.
In the hospital she collected her mother’s holdall and hooked it onto the back of her wheelchair. She picked up the book lying on the side table.
“Hmm. James Patterson. Any good?”
Her mother frowned. “Not bad. A bit violent for my taste.” She hated to admit she’d been too distracted to finish it.
Laura flicked open the cover. “There’s an inscription on the fly-sheet. ‘To daddy love Amy xxx’. Aw, how sweet.” She smiled at her mother and shrugged. “I’ll pop it in my bag. It’ll give me something to read on the ‘plane going home.”
(First published in The People’s Friend)
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